- To slow the rapid loss of global biodiversity, many countries have made commitments to protect and conserve large areas of land in the coming decades, but the fate of the Indigenous peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants who live on these lands remains unclear.
- Past approaches to creating protected areas have involved relocating people or banning access and traditional use of land from its historical inhabitants. An estimated 136 million people have been displaced in the process of formally protecting land.
- A new study addresses the risks Indigenous peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants face from exclusionary conservation measures and urges decision-makers to adapt rights-based conservation approaches.
- As the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity framework draft is negotiated, the 190 countries involved have the opportunity to, according to the study, “actively redress conservation’s colonial history and begin decolonizing conservation,” by codifying rights-based conservation approaches.
The world is facing an ongoing sixth mass extinction. To curb this human-caused loss of global biodiversity, many countries have made commitments to protect and conserve large areas of land in the coming decades. But the fate of the Indigenous peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants who live on these lands remains unclear.
A new study conducted by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) in collaboration with the Campaign for Nature addresses the risks these groups face from exclusionary conservation measures and urges decision-makers to adopt rights-based conservation approaches.
Safeguarding at least 30% of Earth’s land surface by 2030 is a goal in the current draft of the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 Global Biodiversity framework. However, the current draft does not include protections for the rights of more than 1.65 billion Indigenous peoples, local communities and Afro-descendants who live in what are referred to as “important biodiversity conservation areas” or areas that scientists say need protection to prevent biodiversity collapse.
Past approaches to creating protected areas have involved relocating people or banning access and traditional use of land from its historical inhabitants. An estimated 136 million people have been displaced in the process of formally protecting land. Using these historical models to expand conservation would be “highly contentious, prohibitively expensive and come with human rights costs that will fuel land conflicts,” the report says.
“The conflict and violence around some public protected areas demonstrate that exclusionary approaches can’t continue, much less expand to reach global targets,” Raina Thiele, who is Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik and an adviser to the Campaign for Nature on Indigenous issues, said in a statement. “Some conservation organizations recognize this and have shifted practice towards rights-based conservation; others now need to follow suit.”
As the new post-2020 Global Biodiversity framework draft is negotiated, the 190 countries involved have the opportunity to, according to the report, “actively redress conservation’s colonial history, and begin decolonizing conservation,” by codifying rights-based conservation approaches.
“There is no 30% protection by 2030 without the leadership of Indigenous peoples and full respect for Indigenous peoples’ rights,” Thiele said in an interview with Our Daily Planet. “Indigenous peoples have been the most effective stewards of their lands and of biodiversity since time immemorial. Their sustainable life ways and traditional management systems have proven to be better at protecting the environment than many western conservation approaches. Historically, western conservation approaches have also led to violations of Indigenous rights.”
The report stresses the capacity of Indigenous peoples to manage and conserve ecosystems and biodiversity effectively through techniques such as Indigenous fire management, which leads to reduced deforestation. And because an estimated 80% of the planet’s biodiversity is found in Indigenous territories, many of their land management techniques are clearly working to safeguard biodiversity.
This new study builds on the findings of a 2018 study by RRI, “Cornered by Protected Areas,” which documents human rights abuses, displacements and militarized violence committed in the name of conservation and biodiversity protection.
“Throughout conservation’s checkered history, we have seen exclusionary conservation as a gateway to human rights abuses and militarized forms of violence,” José Francisco Cali Tzay, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, who endorsed the report’s findings, said in a statement. “We now have evidence that this approach is also economically devastating. Paying Indigenous peoples to abandon lands they have historically protected better than governments and private entities is wasteful and furthers past wrongs.”
Physically relocating the more than a billion people who live in these important biodiversity conservation areas would cost an estimated $4 trillion to $5 trillion, the authors estimate. Not included in this cost estimate are indirect coats such as potential civil disruption, loss of cultural resources, and “the multi-generational trauma of evicting communities whose identities are inextricably linked to their traditional lands and territories.”
The cost of recognizing the tenure rights of Indigenous and local communities would be less than 1% of the cost of relocation, based on data from Peru, Indonesia, India, Nepal and Liberia.
Most of the people who live in these important biodiversity conservation areas are in middle- and low-income countries and more likely to depend on the natural resources from these areas for their livelihoods. In India, for example, 275 million rural poor, including 89 million tribal people, are estimated to depend on non-timber forest products (NTFPs) for a large part of their livelihoods. Exclusion from these areas may put people at risk of livelihood or food insecurity, and these impacts are likely to disproportionately affect rural women.
“This report shows that as far as both the science and economics are concerned, investing in Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land and resource rights should be a primary strategy for reaching global biodiversity targets,” said Brian O’Donnell, director of Campaign for Nature.
The authors recommend that organizations, donors and governments adopt the Gold Standard principles, which include strengthening respect, recognition and protection of Indigenous peoples’ lands as well as partnerships with Indigenous peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendants; and helping to ensure community rights in the areas of conservation, development and climate.
“The idea that we can save our world without putting indigenous peoples at the heart of the environmental movement is colonialist and racist,” Fiore Longo, head of Survival International’s conservation campaign, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay in an email. “If we’re serious about putting the brakes on biodiversity loss, the cheapest and best-proven method is to recognize indigenous peoples’ land rights.
“Anyone who truly cares about the planet must stop supporting any form of ‘conservation’ which wounds, alienates and destroys the environment’s best allies,” Longo added. “It’s time to decolonize conservation and recognise indigenous peoples as senior partners in the fight to protect their own land.”
Rights and Resources Initiative. (2020). Rights-Based Conservation: The path to preserving Earth’s biological and cultural diversity? Washington, D.C.: Rights and Resources Initiative.
Banner image of Mendouga Rita planting Gnetum in the village of Minwoho in the Lekié, Center Region, Cameroon. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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